Malvasia is an ancient family of grapes that includes a diverse collection of noble varieties. These grapes are capable of producing wine of any feasible color in dry, sparkling and sweet styles. There are dozens of regional synonyms for and sub-varieties of Malvasia, painting the picture of a well-traveled family that has adapted to numerous unique environments. In the 21st Century, Malvasia is produced in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia and the United States.
Believed to be of Greek origin, the Malvasia family has been commercially important to the Mediterranean for more than 2000 years. Malvasia, the name, is a derivation of the coastal Greek town of Monemvasia, where the Venetians had a strategically important fortress and trading post during the time of their empire.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Malvasia wine became so ubiquitous among Venetian merchants that they started naming their wine stores malvasie. The strength of the ancient Malvasia brand may well be the first example of international wine marketing.
Malvasia has a strong historical and viticultural association with islands and some of the most distinctive examples of the wine come from these maritime environments. Most famously, Malmsey wine is made from Malvasia on the Portuguese island of Madeira in the north Atlantic. Malmsey is a varietal expression of Malvasia that is heated and oxidized after fermentation to create a unique style of wine, characterized by its dark coloring (depending on the type of Malvasia used) and rich, ripe and nutty flavors.
Elsewhere in Portugal, at least a dozen sub-varieties of Malvasia are grown in Douro, where they are sometimes used in the production of white Port. In northern Spain, Malvasia is blended with Viura in Rioja and Navarra. Malvasia’s low acidity means it oxidizes easily and adds body weight and texture to the White Rioja Blend.
Another island synonymous with Malvasia wine is Lipari, off Sicily’s north-eastern coast. The area now known as Malvasia delle Lipari DOC once produced enormous volumes of sweet Malvasia wine. Unfortunately, Lipari has never fully recovered from the devastating impact of phylloxera and the sweet, fresh and aromatic wines of the region are now rarities.
Malvasia is grown all over Italy under many names and styles. Often paired with Trebbiano, Malvasia blends make up a significant proportion of inexpensive table wines made on the mainland. The Friuli-Venezia-Giulia DOCs of Collio and Isonzo are regarded as the best varietal examples of dry Malvasia, showing light stone-fruit flavors and a pronounced floral bouquet.
Further south, the fashion is to create slightly sparkling versions of Malvasia in Emilia-Romagna, often with a pinkish hue. In southern Italy, semi-dried Malvasia grapes are vinified into Passito wines to take advantage of the family’s naturally high sugar and potential alcohol levels.
Malvasia Bianca is the main sub-variety and has many offspring of its own. There are also a number of confusingly named, yet unrelated, regional synonyms involving Malvasia. Malvasia Corada is actually Vital, Malvasia Rei is Palomino and Malvasia da Trincheira is Folgasa.
Synonyms include: Malmsey, Malvasier, Malvazia, Monemvasia.
Food matches include:
Europe: Risotto con Gorgonzola, noci e pere (risotto with Gorgonzola, walnuts and pear)
Americas: Waldorf salad
Africa/Middle East: South African apple and almond hake